Hidden London tour of Aldwych tube station

Fancy visiting a disused underground station? I did! With a little forward planning (and hint dropping) I was lucky enough to receive a Hidden London tour of Aldwych station as a Christmas present. What did I think?

Alydwych station

Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station
Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station

Aldwych began life as the Strand station. Hence the rather confusing sign outside the entrance. In stark contrast to those entering Fashion Week across the road our group was (mostly) middle aged and comfortably dressed. No high heels allowed on this tour!

Aldwych was never a busy station. When it opened in 1907 the first two trains didn’t have any passengers at all. Despite partial refurbishment in the 1980s passenger numbers remained low. When the station closed in 1994 only 450 people were using it every day. That said, it’s no ghost station. Indeed, it has led a significant alternative life as we discovered on the tour.

Ticket hall and entrance

The tour started in the ticket hall where our guides, Paul and Nick, provided an overview of the station. The architect, Leslie Green, designed a number of Tube stations, often with similar distinctive features. Our guides highlighted the red station frontage, the teal and cream tiling scheme and the design of the ticket office windows. And to think I’ve never given the design of underground stations a second glance before.

Deserted Aldwych underground station
Deserted Aldwych underground station

From the ticket hall we walked down our first set of stairs to the eastern platform. At this point I realised I hadn’t taken any photos of the ticket hall. I later regretted this as you exit via an alternative route; make sure you don’t make the same mistake if you visit.

Lift shafts

Our next stop was the lift shafts. Three shafts were dug out by hand but only one was fitted with lifts. This economy of design is reflected elsewhere in the station, from unfinished tiling to tunnels.

We discovered that one of the unfinished lift shafts was the perfect location for a music video, Prodigy’s Firestarter. Other bands, including Madness and The Kinks, have also filmed down here.

Eastern platform

The eastern platform only saw active service until 1917, at least in relation to its train service.

Eastern platform, Aldwych
Eastern platform, Aldwych

In World War I the platform acted as an emergency store for over 300 paintings from the National Gallery. This function was repeated in World War II when many valuable artworks were moved underground for storage. These included the Elgin Marbles, which were brought down in the lift. Our guides showed us the large looped rings installed to make their subsequent removal easier.

Tiling designs, Aldwych station
Tiling designs, Aldwych station

Elsewhere on the eastern platform there are experimental tiling designs. We discovered that one of Aldwych’s many alternative uses is as a drawing board for other stations.

Rails at Aldwych underground station
Rails at Aldwych underground station

Although they might not look particularly exciting these original rails contribute to the station’s Grade 2 listing. They are very different to today’s rails; there’s no suicide pit and the sleepers are wooden. They also include an early design of insulator. This is, evidently, a big deal for insulator enthusiasts!

Aldwych Station adverts
Aldwych Station adverts

Posters still adorn some of the walls. Including a timely advert encouraging us to join the Common Market!

Western platform

The Western platform remained open until the station’s closure.

In World War II it was used as an overnight air raid shelter. We sat in a disused carriage and listened to a recording of Julian Andrews, recounting his time spent sheltering here.

Western platform, Aldwych underground station
Western platform, Aldwych underground station

Although the government propaganda advertised a holiday camp atmosphere the reality was a lot of people in a very small space with minimal privacy and hygiene. The toilet was initially a curtained off bucket. However as the bombings dragged on an underground community was formed, offering a library, religious services and entertainers including George Formby.

Whitechapel sign - in Aldwych
Whitechapel sign – in Aldwych

Despite the lack of trains the station is still in use today. Nowadays it makes money from film and TV studios. Films such as Atonement and Darkest Hour and TV shows Sherlock and Mr Selfridge were filmed here. Hence, not everything is at it seems. The Whitechapel sign is an obvious imposter but our guide also pointed out fake tiling and wall panels left behind by the film companies.

Underground map, Aldwych station
Underground map, Aldwych station

The station is also used by emergency and armed services to carry out training. Forces trained here as part of the preparation for the 2012 London Olympics and in 2015 it was used by the emergency services in a mock terrrorist attack.

Western platform, Aldwych
Western platform, Aldwych

There was a lot of heavy breathing as the group climbed the 160 steps back to the surface. From where, ironically, we finished our tour in the lift.

Aldwych lifts

The Edwardian lifts weren’t very reliable and their potential refurbishment cost was one of the reasons for the stations eventual closure. The power failed on occassions so a supply of candles were kept in the lift. If the lift broke down we were shown a ‘secret’ door into the next door lift shaft from where the second lift could come and rescue passengers. Nowadays the lifts don’t move, I’m rather glad of that!

Our 75 minute tour sped by. I’m usually desperate to get out of underground stations but the tour could easily have lasted another hour. I certainly have a new found appreciation of the tunnels beneath our feet!

This trip was on my UK bucket list, pop over to my  blog post to see what else is on there.

More info

  • Hidden London tours are an offshoot of the London Transport Museum. Tours of a variety of underground stations (some disused, some not) are announced several times per year. Most sell out quickly so sign up to the advance notice mailing list on their website to be in with a chance.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

A Roman day out in London

Aside from the educational value, there are two great benefits to a Roman day out in London. Firstly the attractions are mostly indoors, secondly they’re free. This makes it a perfect option for a rainy half term visit. But where to go to discover Londinium?

The Roman settlement of Londinium roughly covered the City of London. It grew rapidly in the 1st Century to overtake Colchester as the largest city in the country. Despite the appearance of modern day London there are still many Roman ruins beneath the city. We spent a day visiting some of London’s more accessible Roman attractions.

Temple of Mithras

Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London
Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London

Even though it’s more than 1800 years old the Temple of Mithras is a relatively new addition to the London tourist circuit. It’s surreally located under part of the Bloomberg European HQ building.

The temple was initially unearthed in the 1950s following excavation works on a bombsite. Thousands of people flocked to see it during its excavation and the temple was subsequently reconstructed for all to see. However, it was criticised for not being an accurate representation; this has been rectified since Bloomberg acquired the site on which it stands.

Temple of Mithras
Temple of Mithras

The current day temple is a faithful reconstruction of the ruin, using original stone and brick. Some parts, such as mortars, are new but have been recreated as if they were 3rd Century Roman.

The first floor displays Roman artefacts found during the excavation including sandals, pottery and coins. Visitors then descend to a mezzanine where you can learn more about the cult of Mithras. A further set of stairs takes you down to the temple.

London Mithraeum
London Mithraeum

The temple would have been at ground level during the Roman era. It’s now seven metres below the pavement! As you enter there’s lighting and sound effects to enhance your visit. The show is around 10 minutes long; visitors are then free to spend time at the end wandering around the temple. It’s not particularly large but is interesting and well worth a visit.

Entrance is free. We turned up on spec and were allowed in immediately but if you want to guarantee entry book online in advance.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a fantastic place to learn more about the development of the city and its people. I prefer to dip into specific rooms or exhibitions rather than attempt to see it all in one go; the Roman galleries are perfect for this.

Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London
Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London

The museum has recently refreshed its display of items that were unearthed at the Temple of Mithras excavations. This makes it an ideal stop after you’ve seen the actual temple. In addition to the Temple artefacts there are exhibits dedicated to many different aspects of Roman society, including trade, burials and games.

From the museum take a peak out the window at your next destination…

London Wall

Roman wall from Museum of London
Roman wall from Museum of London

The Romans built the London Wall as a defensive structure around the landward side of the city sometime between 190 and 225 AD. Parts of it have survived in modern day London albeit with medieval enhancements. One of the easiest sections to spot is right outside the Museum of London, conveniently visible from the Roman galleries inside.

Another well known and easily accessible section is at Tower Hill. An alternative untouristy option is the underground car park next to the Museum of London. Funnily enough we were the only people wandering around the car park looking for a wall.

London Wall, near Museum of London
London Wall, near Museum of London

Roman amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery

On to our last Roman attraction of the day. This time, a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guildhall Art Gallery.

If you visit, first check out the curved line of black stone in the Guildhall yard. This marks the outline of the arena which lies several metres beneath you.

London guildhall
London guildhall

The amphitheatre was discovered in 1988 by archaeologists who were taking part in a dig in preparation for the new art gallery. The remnants were subsequently integrated into the exhibition and have been on public display since 2002.

To reach the ruins you’ll need to walk though part of the art gallery. The juxtaposition of the ornate Guildhall and pre-Raphaelite art with public executions and gladiatorial combat is an intriguing mix!

Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Once underground, the partial remains include a stretch of entrance tunnel, the east gate and stone walls. Display boards outline the history and use of the amphitheatre.

It’s artfully lit, albeit a little heavy on the green graphics for my taste. I like my attractions more, well, Roman. The most surprising thing however was the lack of visitors. A well kept secret!

Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall
Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall

The amphitheatre was a fitting final to our Roman day out. I highly recommend spending a day uncovering history that’s literally beneath your feet.

If you’re looking for other themed days out in London check out my Great Fire of London walk or my post about exploring Second World War London.

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Otis and Us

Best places to see snowdrops in Oxfordshire and Berkshire

Snowdrop weekends have become ‘a thing’ over the last few years. The lure of cake (there’s almost always a tearoom) and the illusion that spring might be on the way certainly works for me. I’ve therefore rounded up my suggestions for the best places to see snowdrops in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Actually, they’re primarily in Oxfordshire, but I couldn’t leave Welford Park out!

Snowdrop weekends are generally held in mid February but this is weather dependent and they sometimes change with minimal notice. Make sure you check the individual websites for opening dates and times before you make a special journey.

Swyncombe church, near Henley

My kind of sign!
My kind of sign!

Pop along and walk around the snowdrops in the churchyard, enjoy cake and coffee and browse other stalls inside the church. The long distance Ridgeway footpath runs past the church so you can always justify the cake by going for a walk beforehand! Read about our previous visit here.

The churchyard is always open; snowdrop weekends are usually held over three February weekends; visit the church website for further details. Free entrance.

Kingston Bagpuize house, near Abingdon

Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

A privately owned home which opens its gardens  for visitors on Sundays in February. There’s more to the garden than just snowdrops; enjoy a wander around the parkland before heading to the tearoom for cake. They even have a dedicated snowdrop plant fair!

Read about our previous visit to the garden here.  Entrance charge applies; further details on the Kingston Bagpuize website.

Braziers Park, near Wallingford

Braziers Park snowdrops
Braziers Park snowdrops

Open for snowdrop visits over just one weekend in February, the estate and house at Braziers Park are run by a community of residential volunteers. As well as snowdrop walks there’s house and estate tours, a pop up tearoom and plants for sale.

Entrance fee and parking charge applies; further details on the Braziers Park website.

Waterperry Gardens

Waterperry Gardens are open year round but run a couple of dedicated snowdrop weekends in February. There are more than 60 varieties of snowdrops in the garden; you can join a guided tour to find out more.

There’s a gift barn, tea shop and garden centre. Entrance charge applies, details on the Waterperry Gardens website.

Badbury Hill, near Faringdon

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Badbury Hill is better known for its bluebells. However there are snowdrops too, albeit nowhere near as many as other sites here. Perhaps incorporate the visit as part of a longer walk rather than make a specific journey.

The wood can be visited at any time. No facilities but Faringdon is close by. Free entrance.

Welford Gardens, near Newbury

Snowdrops at Welford Park
Snowdrops at Welford Park

This is the granddaddy of local snowdrop displays. I think there are more snowdrops at Welford than all of the places above put together. More visitors too!

Welford Park snowdrops
Welford Park snowdrops

The snowdrops in the beech wood are spectacular. They are partially fenced off which is a good thing otherwise they’d be trampled by the hordes. More snowdrops, and aconites, can be found along the river bank. Look closely and you might even spot the telltale marks where the Great British Bake Off tent is erected each spring!

You can read about one of our previous visits here.

Open throughout February (except Mondays and Tuesdays). There are tearooms, a small gift shop and special snowdrop events throughout the month. Entrance charge applies; monies raised are split between local charities. Full details on the Welford Park website.

Have you visited any of the above? Or do have alternative suggestions?

Twixmas walking in Keswick, Lake District

I love the days between Christmas and New Year. Not for the Christmas TV, piles of chocolate or Boxing Day sales. Instead it’s the call of the mountains.

As in previous years I’d booked a short walking holiday with Country Adventures. This year the destination was Keswick in the Lake District.

Keswick YHA

Our base was Keswick YHA. At the welcome meeting on the first evening it was great to see familiar faces from previous trips and meet new ones. Joe, the leader, talked through the walk options and the format of the break.

I shared a dorm room with three other ladies from the trip. However if youth hostels aren’t for you, Keswick is packed with hotels and B&Bs. It definitely has the feel of a holiday town about it. We ate out in town both nights; there’s plenty of options to choose from and I can recommend the Fellpack.

Day 1 – High Seat

Our first walk was a 10 mile route via Walla Crag, Bleaberry Fell and High Seat.

En route to Bleaberry Fell
En route to Bleaberry Fell

For me, the weather can make or break a walk. Purists might roll out the ‘no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothing’ saying but I beg to differ. I’ve been soaked enough times (in suitable clothing) to know I don’t like walking in rain.

I was therefore relieved when the drizzly stuff that accompanied our walk out of Keswick towards Walla Crag eased off.

View from Bleaberry Fell
View from Bleaberry Fell

Once up on Walla Crag the weather started to improve and we were treated to views back over Derwentwater, its islands and the surrounding fells.

En route to High Seat
En route to High Seat

We met another group of walkers at the stile which crosses the stone wall. With typical English politeness each urged the other to go first so it took twice as long as it needed to.

At Bleaberry summit we stopped in the small sheltered area for lunch number one (one of the benefits of walking). Another couple, fully kitted out in walking gear, surprised us by asking which fell they were on. Closely followed by another couple asking the same question!

The boggy bit between Bleaberry and High Seat - about to get boggier!
The boggy bit between Bleaberry and High Seat – about to get boggier!

Between Bleaberry and High Seat the ground gets boggier. Over the years I like to think I’ve perfected my bog walking technique. Move quick, step lightly and when you need to make landfall choose the brown reedy sections. It’s not always successful but I’m pleased to say it worked well on this walk.

Descent from High Seat
Descent from High Seat

I thought we’d escaped any further rain but the presence of a rainbow behind us suggested otherwise. Sure enough the rain clouds caught up with us as we reached the summit of High Seat. Fortunately a rocky platform provided some shelter and the opportunity for lunch number two.

The shower blew through quickly and we started a lovely descent from High Seat. The sun even made an appearance.

Ashness Bridge
Ashness Bridge

At the foot of the hill we reached Ashness Bridge. This is evidently the most photographed bridge in the Lake District. Probably something to do with it being next to a car park! Cynicism aside the backdrop of Skiddaw makes for a great photograph, particularly with the fading afternoon light.

Derwentwater at sunset
Derwentwater at sunset

Our route home took us under Falcon Crag and down and around the shore of Derwentwater. Dusk fell quickly and it was dark by the time we reached Keswick.

Day 2 – Causey Pike

Joe offered two walking options for the second day. An 11 mile walk with 3400ft of ascent  taking us over Sail & Causey Pike, or a slightly shorter lower level option.  As I hail from the flatlands of Oxfordshire there was no hesitation, I chose the higher option.

View back towards Coledale Valley
View back towards Coledale Valley

Setting out from Braithwaite, the first couple of miles took us along a well made track into the Coledale Valley. Our path was an access route for Force Crag Mine, whose abandoned buildings sit at the head of the valley. Lead, barites and zinc were mined here until its closure in 1990.

Descent off of Crag Hill
Descent off of Crag Hill

We diverted off the mine track to cross stepping stones across a ford and started our climb uphill. Looking back down to the mine we could see two large pools which I’ve since discovered were for water treatment. It turns out the environmental impact from the mine was one of the worst in the UK as metal polluted water used to flow into Coledale Beck and onwards. It’s hard to take this in when you’re surrounded by the grandeur of the mountains; somehow you always think of pollution as a city problem.

Into the mist on Crag Hill
Into the mist on Crag Hill

Onwards and upwards. Climbing into the mist. And the wind. In equal measure of hating rain I love walking in the wind! There’s nothing that makes you feel more alive than wind whipping across your face. It was a day to blow the cobwebs away.

Crag Hill
Crag Hill

The first summit, of Crag Hill, arrived in a blur of mist and cairns. We stood beside the trig point for the obligatory group shot. Although the barren plateau could have been anywhere!

From Crag Hill we picked our way down the rocky path, on towards Sail. As we descended the mist slowly cleared and we were able to glimpse the valley below. It’s a fabulous section of the walk, even if the wind was doing its best to take us off  our feet.

Sail to Causey Pike
Sail to Causey Pike

From Sail we followed the relatively new zigzag path down and on towards Causey Pike. Many walkers call this an eyesore; I rather like it.

On to Causey Pike
On to Causey Pike

There’s a short scrambly section to get off the summit of Causey Pike. It’s a straightforward scramble if you’re walking up the fell although a little more interesting descending it on wet rock.

Descent from Causey Pike
Descent from Causey Pike

The only downside to this walk was the 4 mile traipse back into Keswick. It was a perfectly good route but for me the walk is finished once you get off the hill. There was one saving grace, a cafe, serving Rolo brownies. It was dark once more by the time we left the cafe; I so look forward to long summer days again.

Day 3

Joe offers a third shorter day of walking but unless the trip is closer to home I leave early to beat the traffic. Although I’d much prefer to be in the mountains than on the M6!

More info

I walked with Country Adventures. The trip cost £235 including YHA accommodation and breakfast but excluding packed lunches and evening meals.

Joe gets a lot of repeat business (almost everyone on the Twixmas trip was a previous customer) which is a testament to his professionalism. If you enjoy mountain walking in a small group without the hassle of map reading check out his trips for the coming year.

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